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Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: The Silent, Odorless Killer

By HERWriter
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What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon Monoxide, also known as CO, is an odorless, colorless gas that is given off when products containing carbon are incompletely burned. The gas is produced by many things we use every day: cars, trucks, small gasoline engines (lawn mowers, snow blowers), stoves, lanterns, gas furnaces and generators and water heaters. Such machines and appliances should be operated only in well-ventilated places so the carbon monoxide doesn't accumulate.

Carbon monoxide kills 500 people every year in the United States. This gas can affect otherwise healthy individuals, but can more seriously harm infants, people of all ages with lung or heart disease, or anemia.

According to www.emedicinehealth.com, carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States.

How does CO Poisoning Happen?

If cars, trucks or other machines or appliances are run in a confined space the carbon monoxide builds up. CO molecules are smaller than oxygen molecules and are absorbed by the blood faster than oxygen. If there is sufficient CO in the air, the lungs will take in more carbon monoxide than oxygen. When carbon dioxide is breathed out, it is replaced by carbon monoxide instead of oxygen. In more scientific terms, it actually impairs the body's ability to carry oxygen to organs and tissues.

Carbon monoxide impairs a person's visual perception, and ability to exercise, pick things up with their hands, learn new information or perform more challenging tasks.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, incomplete combustion of fuels is more likely to occur where there is low air-to-fuel ratios in the engine itself. These conditions are usually more common in the winter when catalytic converters and other engine parts responsible for combustion operate less efficiently, or if cars or other appliances are not properly maintained or installed correctly.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The CDC reports that the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

- headache
- dizziness
- fatigue
- nausea
- vomiting
- chest pain
- confusion
- shortness of breath
- depression
- hallucinations (later on)

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms in relative proximity to a running machine or vehicle, get them to a place that is well ventilated and away from the potential source of the carbon monoxide.

Most of the deaths associated with carbon monoxide poisoning happen because a person was sleeping or intoxicated at the time and never consciously experienced the symptoms.

Prevention of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

To prevent carbon monoxide fumes from building up and invading your body, follow these simple tips provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:

- Never run your car in a closed garage
- Make sure fuel burning appliances are installed by a professional and that they are working properly
- Choose vented appliances when possible
- Never use a gas range or oven to heat your home
- Have your heating system and chimneys inspected each year
- During winter months check frequently that vents, flues and chimneys are not blocked by snow or ice
- Replace dirty air filters on heating and cooling systems
- Never run a generator, power washer, or any diesel or gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage or other enclosed structure
- Keep your home well ventilated - install ventilation for indoor combustion appliances and consider installing air exchanges or air conditioning if your home it tightly sealed
- Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, or camping lantern or portable stove inside your home, tent, or camper
- Install carbon monoxide detectors near bedrooms
- Talk to your doctor or local health department if you suspect that you, or a family member, might be suffering from carbon monoxide fumes
- Call your local building code enforcement agency if you have concerns about the combustion appliances in your home (www.hud.gov).

Sources: www.mayoclinic.com; www.hud.gov; www.epa.gov; www.emedicinehealth.com; www.cdc.gov

Add a Comment2 Comments

Can CO linger in ones lungs after it is discovered in ones home. I wonder if my shortness of breath is related to that although it has been over a month.

March 4, 2012 - 1:33pm
HERWriter (reply to carame11)

In cases of acute poisoning, there may be permanent damage to the brain or heart because of the lack of oxygen, and recovery can be slow.

According to the CDC, the carbon monoxide that we might breathe in over the course of an ordinary day takes 24 hours to completely leave our lungs. It stands to reason that larger amounts of carbon monoxide could take longer to leave your lungs, but that is really something you need to discuss with your family doctor. They can do a blood test to see if there is still carbon monoxide in your system, assuming that the original source for the carbon monoxide levels in your home has been addressed.

The shortness of breath you're experiencing could be a lingering effect of your exposure to carbon monoxide, but it could also be associated with something else. You need to discuss it with your family doctor. Perhaps other readers who have experienced CO2 poisoning can offer their "follow-up" stories.

I include a few links for you for your own information: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002804.htm ; http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/carbonmonoxide-factsheet.pdf ; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/PHS/PHS.asp?id=1146&tid=253.

March 6, 2012 - 2:32pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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